Poor Burundi. This Vermont-sized African country has been put under a microscope by the world’s punditsphere and has been thrust onto the first stage of the media cycle as of late, ever since its incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza (CNDD-FDD) decided to run for a third consecutive time in April. Arguing that his first term in power was not by universal suffrage but by Parliamentary appointment and holding up a Constitutional Court ruling to back him up, Nkurunziza defeated an attempted coup d’etat and watched as 145,000 Burundians fled the country over fears of an impending Rwandan-style genocide. Nkurunziza went to win just shy of 70% of the vote, securing a third consecutive term.
Since April, every step taken by Nkurunziza has been analyzed and dissected by human rights activists and academics in Western media. With his every move, calls multiplied on the Internet ‘echo chamber’ to overthrow the despot. “[Nkurunziza’s] best course is to retire with dignity” read the Guardian, before adding “Every time a coup like that in Burundi is attempted, it threatens us all. Every time a president subverts a lawful constitution or outstays his welcome, the hazards are shared. Every time democracy is diminished or usurped, we are all diminished too.” The International Crisis Group demanded that “the European Union and African Union […] Increase donor support to Burundi’s civil society” and send an observation mission. "The international community cannot afford to stand idly by”, stated unequivocally Deutsche Welle in a piece titled “Time to intervene in Burundi”. For its part, the New York Times warned of an impending civil war “If the United Nations, Western donors and the African Union don’t act quickly, and prepare to intervene if necessary, the tension could explode into a full-scale civil war, threatening the stability of Africa’s entire Great Lakes region.
For most Western journalists, the familiar story writes itself: African kleptocrat, wishing to stretch constitutional limits in order to maintain his hold of power meets ‘civic’ resistance and international pressures to change his track. Self-styled moral crusaders band together, invading the opinion pages of the Grey Lady and her ilk, and condemn in equal measure the African Head of State and the ‘international community’ for standing idly by. Cleverer commentators show how the West has in fact been propping up these regimes for decades though the medicine is always the same: more Western intervention.
What this shows is that the media works with reductionist boilerplate labels, sometimes with dangerous consequences. Essentially, the media narrative assumes that Africa is a country and treats every political development with the same verbal toolkit. Pick up any article talking about those countries elections and the language is eerily familiar. Before Burundi, we had Nigeria, before that we had Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Sudan. And more will come.
Take Congo-Brazzaville for example. Ruled by Denis Sassou-Nguesso for 30 out of the last 35 years, the country is up for presidential elections next year. Arguing that the country’s constitution is outdated and was written as a temporary document in the wake of Congo’s bloody civil war of 1997, Sassou Nguesso has set about to change it – only to attract the wrath of the international media, with renewed calls on the West to freeze presidential assets and slap Sassou-Nguesso with sanctions. Never mind that Sassou Nguesso never declared outright his intention to run again, and that the opposition itself agreed that the Constitution needs to be changed, the ‘African dictator’ label fit. It’s easier to demonize than to engage constructively.
The bottom line is that countering antidemocratic behavior with international interventions is the very antithesis of democracy. Calling on Western forces to mount multilateral military campaigns and effectively bomb the citizens of a third country because of their sordid political class is nothing short of a crime against humanity. The West has for too long assumed a phantasmagorical moral high ground at whose behest it had thought appropriate to guide the affairs of another country. What’s worse is that external intervention sabotages a nation’s own democratic processes and removes the capacity of a people to go through essential power struggles and create their own political institutions. Where would the U.S. be without the self-produced transformational events that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Gettysburg? How would the US political system have looked like if Europe would have fought its wars for it and a French general would have given Colonel Chamberlain’s momentous speech?
No matter how despicable and unsavory Nkurunziza is, the West and Western media should simply stay out of it. Instead of hopping the nation building gravy train, maybe our leaders would be wiser to do some nation building at home first and allow other countries the same beneficence that was extended to them, namely the right to chose their own paths. Let the ballot box be the litmus test and not the rants of human rights activists.
Gary Greenbaum is a Virginia-based digital media analyst and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.